Until just a couple of years ago they hadn’t either heard about it or regarded it as a luxury they could never afford. Having just discovered it they seem to love to bits.
This object of fascination in Afghanistan has a magic name: Intikhabat” (elections), a word that forced its way into the nation’s political lexicon in 2002, much to the chagrin of the deposed Taliban mullahs who regarded it as “a Western abomination”. Poets have written odes (qasidah) in its praise and village assemblies ( jirgah) are buzzing with the talk of intikhabat. Even mosque preachers have jumped on the bandwagon and describe elections as “a gift from God.”
To some Afghans the spectacle of men and women candidates fighting for votes is at least as good as that of “ bozakashi”, the nation’s favourite sport in which horsemen try to snatch a sacrificial goat from one another.
Remember 2002 when self-appointed pundits in the West sneered at the thought of elections in Afghanistan. The Afghans, we were told, were nothing but human war-machines wearing beards or burqahs, and deserved nothing better than the beard-measuring and burqah-imposing mullahs and their terrorist allies.
With their first presidential election last year and their first free general election next Sunday the Afghans have already shown that, given a chance, they are more than willing to take the path of democratisation. The turnout in the presidential election, just over 55 per cent, is expected to be bettered by at least 10 per cent in the general election. (Voter registration is 18 per cent higher than last year.)
But it is not the physical aspects of the election- registration and voting- that matter most. What matters are the quality of the candidates and their discourse. And it is on those scores that Afghanistan’s performance is encouraging.
Much of the campaign debate has been of a surprisingly high quality, especially when dealing with bread-and-butter issues that interest the average citizen.
There seems to be a large measure of consensus on basic principles. Almost no one wants to return to the bad old days of the Taliban. A majority of candidates have called for a clear demarcation of religion from politics. The most prevalent view on economic policy is that Afghanistan needs a market-based system which would mean the dismantling of the centralized decision-making set up under the monarchy and continued under the Communists and the Taliban. Such newly asserted values as respect for human rights, a better status for women, and tolerance of cultural diversity have been vigorously defended by many candidates.
Some of those in the West who wanted Afghanistan to fail in order to get at the United States and/or George W Bush had predicted that elections there would sharpen ethnic divisions and lead to civil war. ( The same argument is used by the same people in the case of Iraq.) That, however, has not happened. Almost no one is appealing for votes on sectarian grounds.
More interestingly, an opposition alliance of 14 parties, drawing support from most major ethnic communities, appears to be heading for an impressive performance on Sunday. Fears that some communities may seek secession or special favours that no central government can offer have proved groundless.
Those in the West who opposed the liberation of Afghanistan also claimed that elections would translate into a victory for Islamist parties. But that is not going to happen either. In fact, no major group in this election is standing on an Islamist platform.
Some Islamist figures of the anti-Soviet war era have redesigned themselves as democratic politicians and are seeking votes with secular themes. Are they playing a game of deception? Perhaps. But even if they are, this would be a case of vice paying compliment to virtue. In any case, if anecdotal evidence and rudimentary polls are right even the most moderate Islamists are unlikely to go very far this time.
Those nostalgic for Mullah Muhammad Omar also claimed that elections in Afghanistan would be dominated by “the warlords”. The term “ warlord” has been used to vilify many Afghan leaders whose sole fault was to have fought the Soviet occupation and driven the Communist out of Kabul at the end of the Cold War.
But many of these so-called “warlords” had been ordinary citizens, doctors, engineers, businessmen and students who had taken up arms to fight the Moscow-backed Communist regime. Not all are beyond reproach and, in some cases, it is vital that the next elected government investigates all charges against them. But most have managed to return to civilian life and seem to be accepted as leaders of their constituencies.
Despite the current encouraging picture, Afghanistan’s new democracy remains vulnerable.
To start with the terrorist groups, including Taliban, remain active in at least four provinces in the southeast and the west. It is clear that these groups benefit from at least tacit support from either Iran or Pakistan. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his private army would not be able to continue hit-and-run attacks against Afghan villages without having fall-back positions inside the border with Iran. And as far as the Taliban are concerned it is no mystery that Islamabad, while sincere in its crackdown against “ Arab Afghans”, is
less so when it comes to Pushtun terrorists from Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The new Afghan army and police force are in their infancy and would need between three and five years before they can ensure the nation’s security. In the meantime the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) is still unable or unwilling to commit itself to protecting the nascent Afghan democracy against its terrorist enemies and their backers in the region. NATO’s 11000 soldiers kept as a largely symbolic presence in Kabul while the United States’ task force of 20000 men is almost exclusively focused on hunting down the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Another danger to Afghanistan’s new democracy is President Hamid Karzai’s attempts at strengthening the executive branch of the government at the expense of the legislative. Adopting the presidential system, inspired by the American model, may have been a wise choice in the immediate aftermath of liberation. But the American system also provides for the separation of powers under which a strong Congress and an independent Supreme Court keep the presidency in check.
That, however, has not happened in Afghanistan. The central government, which in effect means the president and his entourage, have accumulated immense powers by controlling the all-important flow of aid while enjoying uncritical support from Washington.
The United States should use its influence to encourage the devolution of more powers to the National Assembly elected this weekend. Afghanistan is a nation of minorities with 18 communities speaking six different languages and following three different versions of Islam. Each community is in turn divided into numerous tribes and clans.
Most Afghans like to see themselves as so many streams flowing into a big river that is Afghanistan. That image can acquire some reality only through democratic power-sharing. And that means greater powers for the parliament and elected local authorities. Otherwise the streams may well stop flowing in the same direction.